1460 Hertel Avenue, Buffalo NY 14216
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"Taste of Thai isn't a diamond in the rough, but rather a golden needle in the haystack of WNY dining - worth trying if you don't live in the area, and visiting more often if you do."
At one point, Buffalo had a Thai restaurant that we would have put up against any competitor in the world, including the best places we've eaten at in Thailand. That restaurant, The King & I, saw its management and cooking staff split in two during a falling out some years ago, coinciding with its forced relocation out of its longtime plaza home. While half of the staff remained in the Amherst area under the same King & I name, two of its stars - an ultra-smooth maitre d'-slash-server, and a truly great chef - left to start a new restaurant named Taste of Thai in Buffalo. Located on Hertel Avenue, Taste of Thai became the only Asian restaurant on a strip that hosts the area's Little Italy, and the only purely Thai restaurant in the city proper, facts that thrilled neighbors who hadn't had such easy access to Thai food, let alone such authentic stuff. Though Taste of Thai's chef subsequently retired and was replaced in the kitchen by his son, the former maitre d' and now owner, who later brought in another cook, this restaurant is still good for a strong meal at a fair price.
The Story: Though some might assume that Taste of Thai's Buffalo address was picked to win favor with sophisticated diners downtown - and it surely draws some patrons from elsewhere in the city - we were told that much of the clientele in the surrounding neighborhood is new to Thai food, which the restaurant finds gratifying: unlike the suburbs, which have had Thai outposts for years, Taste of Thai can cater to patrons who are discovering for their first time that they prefer Thai food to the Chinese they've been eating for so long.
The interior of Taste of Thai has a slightly shabby sophistication, with dim lighting used sparingly amidst red and black decor, and tables that have been dressed for success. Those who have visited other Thai restaurants or Thailand itself will note that Taste of Thai's dark palette offers an unusual contrast with the vivid, cheery colors often favored elsewhere; the Thai populace, in deference to the King of Thailand, has for years been given to wearing bright yellows and pinks, and its establishments are most often bright. By design, Taste of Thai looks like a supper club, even though its prices don't follow the traditions that phrase would imply.
Highs: Though everything on the menu is at least pretty good, the restaurant's best dish has historically been a spicy, basil brown-sauced duck entree with cashew nuts and sweet peppers - a variant on Ped Prig Pow ($15). Once done to utter perfection by the original chef, and arguably better than any Thai dish we've had elsewhere in the world, today's version approaches the old glory, falling short only in the previously crispy texture of the duck's skin, which contrasted beautifully with the softness of its meat and the smoothness of its thick sauce. Chinese fans, think spicy Peking Duck with cashews and you'll understand what makes this so special.
Another favorite, the crispy sweet appetizer noodle dish Mee Krob ($6), comes with chicken, shrimp, and lettuce. Taste of Thai's version was good to begin with, and stands out more every time another Thai restaurant deems it too difficult to make. Other dishes sell at reasonable prices, and continue to taste very good despite the original chef's retirement. The skewer-grilled Thai favorite Satay is served three pieces to a $6 appetizer plate as chicken, pork or beef, with a plate of all three going for $7; most restaurants these days only offer two of the three meats. A delicious Thai take on fried calamari, Tod Pa Muk, sells for $7.25 with a dish of sweet and sour dipping sauce, while unfried Fresh Rolls - room temperature rice paper-wrapped bundles of rice noodles and cool lettuce known elsewhere as Summer Rolls - sell two for $4 in vegetarian form, or two for $5 with shrimp.
The menu is otherwise streamlined for customization to a given diner's vegetarian, meat, or seafood preferences. Six soups, including the classically spicy red Tom Yum soup, are all sold in vegetarian ($4), meat ($5), and various seafood ($5.25-$5.55) versions. Eight salads offer similar flat prices and varied meat choices, as do stir-fried dishes, chef's specialties, and numerous curries. Despite the huge variety of choices, it's easy to figure out what sounds good, then pick a meat, and know the price.
Lows: Though we understand the virtues of dark interior design, Taste of Thai's dining area could stand to be brightened up a bunch; the dim lighting makes it difficult to read the menus, and as you might notice, take photos. It has also varied somewhat in staffing over the years, sometimes feeling understaffed, and at other times closer to "right."
In our view, the biggest problem with Taste of Thai in our view is its location: even by comparison with the cramped King & I parking lot, its Hertel Avenue storefront suffers from limited parking, which we suspect is one of a few factors limiting its clientele. One gets the sense that Taste of Thai could easily have lines out the door and an even more polished repertoire, should it want to make a few changes.
The Verdict: Taste of Thai isn't a diamond in the rough, but rather a golden needle in the haystack of Western New York dining - the sort of restaurant that's worth trying at least once if you don't live in the area, and visiting more often if you do. As with the Vietnamese 99 Fast Food Restaurant on Bailey, we consider the place to be compelling despite the parking challenges; those who live in the neighborhood and nearby will be especially thrilled to have such an authentic Thai option nearby.
Updated August 8, 2008 + September 1, 2009 We updated this piece with new photography following an early August, 2008 visit, and new text in September, 2009. Our opinion of the restaurant remains very positive; the quality of the pork and eggplant with green curry, the chicken with yellow curry, papaya salad, and Thai iced tea was wonderful - the papaya salad in particular - except that the eggplant was fried to an overly crispy level. Mee Krob, the crispy noodle dish we love, was incredibly generous in quantity but was a little on the greasy side, and the chicken inside was unimpressively tiny in size (though fine on quantity) and chewy. Prices were generally very reasonable as well; a very generously sized dinner for two was around $40 before tip. There's a new cook - the maitre d'/manager's brother - and we're very impressed; it's easy to feel on certain dishes that this is the best overall Thai restaurant locally, but on other dishes, other places we've reviewed (Jasmine, King and I) reign supreme.